A NEW exhibition at Bradford's Peace Museum is looks at the district's role in helping child refugees from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

Los niños vascos: Basque Children in Yorkshire 1937 details the role the UK took in rehousing thousands of children, brought to the country to prevent them from falling victims to the bloody conflict.

And in a time when stories about refugees from the war in Syria are rarely out of the news, the exhibition is particularly timely.

The museum, the only one of its kind in the UK, is displaying photographs, newspaper articles and artefacts from the time.

In September 1937, the Dr Barnardo children’s home on Manningham Lane, Bradford, and the Morton Banks Sanatorium in East Riddlesden were turned over to voluntary groups to house children aged between five and 15 from northern Spain.

The Telegraph & Argus even adopted two children into its youth group.

Four thousand Basque children had arrived in Southampton in May, in the aftermath of the bombing of Guernica, Durango and other Basque towns by the fascist army of General Franco, which eventually overthrew the elected Spanish Republican government in 1939.

Twenty children stayed in Bradford in the Manningham building. The Morton Banks colony became the largest in Yorkshire, hosting nearly 100 children.

This new exhibition was produced by the Basque Children of ’37 Association UK, and the Peace Museum is focussing on the Bradford side of the story.

In many ways the story mirrors what is happening in the UK today - there was a split between those who wanted to show the nation's humanitarian side and help young people avoid life in a war zone, and those that felt the country should look after its own citizens before extending the hand of friendship to others.

At the outbreak of the war the British government refused to take on any children, claiming it would be interference in Spanish affairs. The children’s needs became a humanitarian issue supported by individuals from many local organisations. Occasional unruly behaviour in the first children’s colonies was given prominence in the news alongside the fund-raising efforts.

But once the children arrived in Bradford and Keighley, most of the stories in the Telegraph & Argus were positive.

Children were ‘adopted’ by local individuals and organisations who promised to provide ten shillings (50p) a week for their upkeep, and treats on birthdays. Two of the children were adopted by a youth club organised at the T&A.

Despite the language barriers, the children made friends at local schools, with some attending Bradford Belle Vue Girls School. The T&A reported on the children's interactions with Clarion Cycling Club, and days out to Lister Park. Their homes employed a matron, but were also cleaned and looked after by volunteers. Others offered services of dentistry, boxing, and interpreting.

The camps were requisitioned when the Second World War broke out, and children were either returned to their families in Europe or remained in the UK.

Some of the exhibits at the museum are re-productions of children's drawings of their homes. However, instead of happy pictures of family life, the drawings are of bombs being dropped on houses and burning ruins.

"Some of the images they drew are quite graphic. There is a tradition that when large boats came into Southampton other ships would sound their horns," said Shannen Lang, Learning and Administration Officer at the museum.

When the refugee children came the other ships were asked not to sound their horns because it would remind children of air raid sirens.

"There were around 200 children who came to Yorkshire, and Keighley was the biggest camp with around 100 children.

"Most had been taken from their parents, and they only thought it would be for a period of three months, they thought the government would have defeated Franco by then.

"When it came to being sent back a lot did, but those who were over 16 could chose to stay, and some did."

Those that took on the children wanted them to maintain their Spanish identity, and so were provided with books in their own language.

Miss Lang added: "When a lot of the children went back to Spain it was hard to adjust, and a lot of the children who stayed here probably never really felt British either.

"One of the reasons we wanted to do this exhibition was because what is going on at the moment. We are not political, but it is good to raise questions and have people think about these things."

The exhibition is currently running at the Piece Hall Yard museum, which is open each Thursday. It is expected to run until March.

A special evening event will be held in the museum on Thursday, February 18 from 5.30pm to 8pm.

Carmen Kilner of the Basque Children's Association and an author of a book on the subject, Adrian Bell, will be attending, possibly with with some of the children themselves, or their relatives.